Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! – on Political Theatre

It’s not often that I go see Hong Kong theatre shows (here’s one I reviewed), partly because most are translations of Western works (often not even adapted for context), partly because some shows are overtly political, and partly because the shows are often flawed – let me explain this point first.  I say ‘flawed’ in the sense of ‘work in progress’; it’s a common happening here that a show will have 5, 6, even 12 ‘re-runs’ over the years, with rewrites and minor changes to every re-production.  Only last week I was notified that a friend’s theatre show is doing its 5th rerun with a better script rewrite.  Perhaps ‘flawed’ may have been an overly negative word to use; yet how many times can you promote a product that is ‘new and improved’? And I wonder if the reruns attract a new audience, or if people who saw the old version want to watch it again just to see the difference?  Or simply rewatch it like you reread a good book?

I saw ‘The Glass Menagerie’ many years ago, and although I was thoroughly impressed by the transition into Cantonese – it was so perfect that I could even recall the original lines of the text in by bilingual brain! – it was (as expected) staged with Western period costumes (blonde permed wigs, elaborate dresses) and naturalistic European decor.  Which is always a bit weird: a sudden thought takes me to The Print Room controversy earlier in the year, when they had an all-white cast play Asian characters in an Asian story; yet in Asia it’s unquestioned when we do the reverse.  (I saw a poster of a Cantonese dramatised version of an American film, where an actor was wearing blackface… I’m pretty sure there was no controversy over that – I guess the train of thought was, arguably, would you be able to find a black actor that speaks Cantonese instead? Or: why didn’t they just adapt the ethnicity of the character to something closer to home?! *puts head in hands*)

And now, politics – there is absolutely no harm in involving political topics in a play.  However the best stories aren’t didactic; their message is for you to take away and ponder on.  Ibsen doesn’t condemn or promote Nora’s decision to leave the family home in ‘A Doll’s House’; he simply presents a situation where it challenged the conventions of that society.  Yet Hong Kong theatre directly takes politics, satirises it, borders on slander, and hammers home a deliberate and one-sided viewpoint, promoting extremist attitudes as we have increasingly seen with certain pro-democrats (the irony being, of course, that democracy is be the most open minded of all political mindsets, and therefore should be tolerant of others who subscribe to other trains of thought).  There’s this implication that democracy = good, and undemocratic = bad; but isn’t democracy as a word simply neutral?  It’s a concept prone to both pros and cons, just like any idea, style or story is prone to personal judgement.  Rain’s not good or bad, it’s just a thing.  Mind you, I’m not anti-democracy, I just think that extremes on any spectrum can lead to an unhealthy social situation.

And this leads to my main topic of Dario Fo, whose plays on contemporary politics were steeped in political controversy for his criticism of corruption within the Italian government, as well as commenting on taboo issues such as the conditions of the working classes and the mafia.  Theatre is not about delivering a message, but rather offering a space for discussion – to present parallels or possibilities.  As Fo himself said in an 1983 interview with Derek Boothman,

“We no longer wanted to provide a key for the solution for old arguments — we wanted to immerse ourselves in the movement, respond to the needs that were emerging and become the loud-speaker of the movement, to open up a real dialogue.”

When I saw ‘Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!’ advertised in Chinese, I had mixed feelings for all the aforementioned reasons.  But with Fo’s sad passing last year, and my own affinity for his work (my first directorial piece was an extract from ‘Accidental Death of an Anarchist’), I withheld all reservations and went for it.


The choice of a monochrome set, symbolic dividing lines on stage, and minimalistic props framed with pipe structure and bed boxes contrasted with the striking choice of colourful clown make up and outfits.  A rather unnaturalistic design choice, I imagine it was to link with the commedia dell’arte form; whether it worked is debatable.  The acting was as expected: the exaggerated delivery of lines commonly seen in Hong Kong acting regardless of theatre or television or comedy characters in film was a personal annoyance if only for the fact that it actually worked because of Fo’s comedy style – yet was probably not a deliberate choice to match acting style to narrative genre.  What was commendable, though, was the use and integration of physical theatre which is uncommon in mainstream Hong Kong theatre.

In regard to the script, the Cantonese translators did a great job with humorous phrases, additional Cantonese puns, and the play of language was adapted well for the context.  There were a lot of vulgarities (which was a little disturbing considering there were children in the audience) but this element is actually so common in Hong Kong’s comedy genre that it seems indispensable.  I would love to see comedy that doesn’t use demeaning jokes and sexual references – it probably started with Steven Chow’s own comedic style (brilliantly unique and unexpected at the time), which also used mistaken identity, physical comedy and wit, but the form has evolved to something that is so crude now that it’s not even funny.

(Tangent: I tried watching the film Vulgaria – and with a title like that, I was extremely open minded to it being crude in both form and language – yet the ‘humour’ just didn’t work.  Non-Cantonese-speaking critics actually complained that it wasn’t as bad as they thought – but this is because the Western audience is expecting VISUAL crudeness.  The crudeness displayed through the language was off the scale, and the translated subtitles are not even a scratch on the profanities actually said.  In fact, if you watched it in English, it’s as if you watched the film like it was censored.  It wasn’t clever, it wasn’t witty, and its dull repetition can only suggest that the audience likes nothing more than laughing at a person being kicked in the balls.  Repeatedly.  With no punch line.)

As a political piece, of course local incidents were written in (there was a reference to pepper spray from the Umbrella protests, as well as some local politics about a TV station closing down) and the tone of the scene demonstrating the fear the public have for authority was a bit close to home (which is a good thing – the kind of subtlety that should make you feel like you want to do something about it).  Certain comments I felt reflected our cultural expectation of entitlement (first world problems), and the dynamic between husbands and wives were sadly cartoon-like.  I say ‘sadly’, because dramatised relationships in Hong Kong (especially portrayed in media, and emulated by the masses – or is media a reflection of reality?) often seem like a power dynamic more than anything.  Cue incident where girl publicly slaps kneeling boyfriend repeatedly as he begs for forgiveness – and they don’t actually understand that is ‘abuse’.

What I appreciated was the integration of actors who were from China – the play was performed in Cantonese, and you could hear the imperfect accents from a couple of the performers.  The playwright took this into account for the characters, and used it to show the integration of Hong Kong/Chinese identities, making it a culturally collaborative piece of work and acknowledging authentic backgrounds, rather than ignoring the accent/issue altogether, or demanding that everyone have the same accent.  Dramatically delivered lines in Mandarin was a nice touch in one particular scene.

The play itself is a little bit of madness in an otherwise regulated, structured and inflexible lifestyle, which is something very relevant to the Hong Kong audience.  Fo’s  comedy didn’t fail to tickle the audience, and with all my own search for perfection, most of the audience were engaged throughout the show with its absurd circumstances.

My final bone to pick relates back to the political aspect of the production.  The ending of the play had the actors line up and call for change – to encourage the audience to ‘speak out, or face the consequences’.  For me, this direct call to arms steps way over the line, and with no comic effect, no subtlety, it leaves you with an unpleasant taste of didactic teaching.

Unfortunately, Fo’s method of political rallying and challenging through sarcasm, irony and affecting poignancy is the one thing that the production did not fully grasp.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s